Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Mar 26, 2024 in By Eric, Haaretz | 0 comments

Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Jews Won’t Serve in the Army; U.S. Jews Need to Speak Up

This week Israel’s Cabinet is planning to discuss, and possibly approve, a contentious bill that would continue to exempt ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from being drafted into the army.

Exemptions extended to virtually all ultra-Orthodox – or Haredi – Jews will expire at the end of the month, by order of the Supreme Court, and all segments of Israeli society have entered the fray, proposing solutions that they claim the Court will approve as “equitable.”

The exemptions have been a source of tension for decades, but the war in Gaza has exacerbated them, with the army saying more soldiers are going to be needed going forward, meaning compulsory service may be extended and reservists will be called up more often.  The issue feels especially raw as the news is punctuated almost daily with announcements of another soldier killed.  Upping the ante, two key cabinet members, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and War Cabinet member Benny Gantz announced that they oppose the government bill.

But Diaspora Jews, and American Jews in particular, have been silent about these proposals.  And this is a profound mistake.  The question of who will be drafted into Israel’s army and who will not be is a matter of enormous consequence, as important in many ways as every other issue on the agenda of American Jews who care about Israel.

Why the silence?

American Jews are not usually reluctant to express their views to Israel’s leadership, particularly on matters with religious implications.  Non-Orthodox American Jews – and they are the majority – have been especially outspoken on questions that impact their own religious status.  They have protested the cancellation of the Western Wall agreement, the denial of rights to Reform and Conservative rabbis, and the multiplicity of ways in which Israel’s government withholds support to the non-Orthodox streams.

But that is not all.  They have called out the rigid, Haredi-run chief rabbinate and the so-called “religious parties” for their extremism and zealotry, and for their never-ending attempts to dictate what non-religious Israelis can and cannot do.  Why, they ask, should the ultra-Orthodox establishment in Israel decide what food is kosher and what is not, who can travel on Shabbat and who cannot, and who can convert to Judaism and who cannot?  Why should they be permitted to use their interpretation of Judaism as a club to diminish the personal freedom and autonomy of everyone else?

And the current draft system is also screamingly unfair, of course.  The ultra-Orthodox do not serve, but conscription is mandatory for all other Jews, who risk their lives while putting personal and professional concerns on hold.  This injustice has generated a fierce backlash from many non-Haredi Israelis, and American Jews are inclined to agree.

Still, it has not been a priority for American Jews, and not only because they don’t serve in the IDF.  The fact is, for me and many other American Jews, it has not always been easy to tell where exactly Israelis stand on this matter.  Over the years, many Israelis whose judgment I trust seemed to believe that the military did not really need Haredim, and that assimilating them into regular army units was more trouble than it was worth.  “OK, it’s unfair,” I’ve heard people say, “but is it really worth the bother to try and turn these folks into real soldiers? Just look at them,” wink-wink.

The assumption was that the army was doing just fine, and in some ways a smaller, highly educated, technologically advanced army was better than a larger, more inclusive one.

And then came October 7, and all the old assumptions were thrown out the window.  The army was not fine, rebuilding and reform were essential, and many, many more soldiers were needed.

The army says it requires 7000 additional troops immediately, and there are estimates that it would need at least several thousand additional combat soldiers.  And since regular army and reserve military service are being increased, a lot, for everybody else, that means that some of the new soldiers will have to come from among the 66,000 yeshiva students currently exempted and studying mostly at the government’s expense.

And what all this means for American Jews is that the question of the draft is no longer another item on the religious freedom list or the coalition bargaining list but a legitimate Zionist concern.  In fact, it is more than that:  it is an existential issue for the Jewish state.

The survival of Israel depends on the strength of its armed forces, and it is now clear to everyone but settler fanatics and Haredi draft-dodgers that Israel cannot sustain itself when so many of its young people refuse to fight.  It is now clear that absent a people’s army, built on a draft that is equitable, efficient, and inclusive, Israel and the Zionist project are doomed to failure and collapse.  American Jews, if they take Israel the least bit seriously, must throw themselves into the public debate and exert whatever influence they can.

And this too:  Netanyahu knows that an expanded draft is essential, but cornered and desperate, he sees the conscription question as his best chance to keep his coalition together.  Working with his toadies in Likud, the Haredi parties, and even the leadership of the National Religious camp, he is trying to make a public argument for Haredi draft evasion, offering a number of wildly impractical and deceptive plans.  Each one is ostensibly “equitable,” meeting the requirements of the Supreme Court, while actually leaving the status quo intact.

For instance, one calls for “national service,” or “community service,” or “civilian service,” or some other form of do-good work that will keep the Haredim out of the army while supposedly benefitting Israeli society.  Another calls for “dialogue” with Haredi leaders that will lead to a “consensual” solution, even though agreement through “dialogue” is not remotely possible.  A third calls for drafting those Haredim who are not engaged in serious Torah study, knowing all along that the yeshiva world will end up claiming that virtually all students are “serious.”

What Israel needs, of course, Is something much simpler:  a law that states Haredi young men will be drafted at age 18, exactly like other Jewish 18-year-olds.  If they choose not to serve, they would not be arrested but would not receive a penny from the state.  If they enter a yeshiva, they would do so without tuition subsidies, daycare subsidies, or any other form of public support.

Can American Jews help to build a majority in the Knesset for such a law, ending Netanyahu’s rule, bringing down the Coalition of the Cowardly and the Insane, and maybe saving Israel in the process?  Perhaps.

And the way to do it is not with political proclamations but with statements of religious principle.  Religious statements from all the religious streams, and joined by Jewish communal bodies, might just remind Israeli politicos that Israel is, and must remain, the state of the Jewish people, fighting for both its physical existence and its spiritual essence.

It might just prod them to remember that Israel, increasingly isolated and abandoned, needs to be vital right for Jews everywhere, and that Israel’s job is to assure that a message of Torah that is inclusive and morally compelling will emanate from Jerusalem to the whole Jewish world.

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, was right when he said that without Torah, there is no existence for the Jewish people.  The problem, with due respect to the learned rabbi, is that he and the Haredi parties misunderstand Torah, and pervert it for their own purposes.

American Jews may not all be learned, but this they know:  It is forbidden to turn Torah into a means to acquire exemption from fundamental human obligations incumbent on all Jews.  It is forbidden for a Jew to require other Jews to spill their blood for him or her, or to defend him or her, in return for study.  (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Torah Study, 3:10.)

Torah, they know, should be studied for its own sake.  For its own sake.  The rest is commentary.

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Like It? Share it!